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Right-wing populism in Sweden: The Sweden Democrats

The political landscape in Sweden is shifting after the last general elections that occurred on September 2022. Although the Social Democrats party remained victorious, the leader of the party, Magdalena Andersson, could not hold a majority in the Parliament so she ended up conceding defeat. Her consequent withdrawal from power meant that the leader of the Moderate Party and the opposing, right-wing bloc, Ulf Kristersson, ended up becoming the Prime Minister of the country. Despite this result, the actual second-largest party in the country's Parliament is still the Sweden Democrats. Due to the fact that the Sweden Democrats give external support to the right-wing bloc and ensured a majority in the Parliament for the right-wing bloc, the party holds considerable influence in the government's decision-making processes. This party is often regarded as a nationalist right-wing populist party, with a major focus on limiting immigration and the influence of the European Union (EU) in Sweden. An informal cordon sanitaire has prevented the Sweden Democrats to hold relevance in the Swedish Parliament until now; still, a large portion of Sweden's population supported said party. This article casts light on the implications of the Sweden Democrats' increasing political influence, and at the same time contextualizes what led the country to vote for them.



Why the Sweden Democrats?


The party was created in 1988 but it did not become relevant in the Swedish political landscape until 1995. Nonetheless, it has progressively gained traction as irregular migration became more prominent in Europe, in particular since the EU refugee crisis. A potential reason behind this steady growth could be the shift from class politics to migration politics, as well as the homogenization of the proposals of the mainstream parties, as the reasons behind the Sweden Democrats' success and why they stand out from the rest of the parties (Rydgren & Van der Meiden, 2018). Simultaneously, the increase in crime rates and gang activity, as well as the lingering economic effects of both the COVID-19 crisis and the Russian invasion of Ukraine have enhanced the popularity of the Sweden Democrats (Diehn, 2022), in addition to the steady decline of the Social Democrats. In the elections of 2018, the Social Democrats hit a record low of 28.5 percent of the votes (Voa news, 2018), meaning that the party has not been able to keep up with the expectations of the voters.


Figure 1. Magdalena Andersson, leader of the Social Democrats

Migration and Euroscepticism


Tracing it back to its origins, the Sweden Democrats were linked to Neo-Nazi and other racist political movements, which was not addressed until 2012 when the party established a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ that caused members affiliated with said movements quit the party (Bolin, 2015). However, even after these changes, the Sweden Democrats focused on migration as one of their key areas of interest, aiming for stricter external border control and minimizing the application of migration regulations from the EU.


The Sweden Democrats seem to prioritize gaining control of deportations and reception of immigrants (Sweden Democrats, n.d.-b). Accordingly, the party is also against any further involvement with the EU when it comes to budget increases or becoming part of the Eurozone (Sweden Democrats, n.d.-a). While they made a Manifesto in 2014 proposing a renegotiation of the Swedish membership to the EU (Bolin, 2015), after Brexit happened, the Sweden Democrats gradually softened their Euroscepticism (The Local, 2019). It could be argued that their soft Euroscepticism is fueled by their sentiment of preserving Swedishness. Likewise, it supports itself on the Sweden Democrats' prioritization of stricter management of the Swedish border controls, aiming to restrict the influx of immigrants in the country.


Figure 2. The Sweden Democrats strongly focus on migration

The myth of the folkhem


Even though any ‘Swexit’ plans are currently not in the party’s main interests, their anti-migration and soft Euroscepticism are always present in their viewpoint of how Swedish identity is constructed. A term that can help understand this perspective is ‘folkhem’, which translates into ‘people’s home’, and it is related specifically to the ideas of the nation, the people, and democracy (Hellström, Nilsson & Stoltz, 2012). Folkhem involves ideas that can be used to engage emotionally with an audience. Specifically, it can trigger nostalgia in the Swedish populace for a time when life seemed better. As a result, populist discourses that refer to folkhem have the potential to appeal to a nativist resentment toward immigrants that have received benefits from the Swedish welfare state, which in return are addressed as a threat to the welfare state and to Swedish identity (Norocel, 2016, p.372). The party in question has openly expressed that they "believe that the Swedish welfare system should be for Swedish citizens, all over our country, no matter the size of your wallet. Migrants need to be employed before they can qualify for Swedish welfare" (Sweden Democrats, 2022). Their language appears to portray the migrant communities as the enemy that is damaging the Swedish welfare state, and at the same time, appeal to the working-class voters.


Folkhem is a tool that allows the Sweden Democrats to support restrictive migratory policies and simultaneously appear to be defending the Swedish welfare state and Swedish people. It is particularly effective because the Swedish welfare state represents part of Sweden’s ‘golden age’ foundational myth, which refers to a period of both modernization and social engineering. "This was manifested, however, through tight social control, social marginalisation, and forced sterilisation of those deemed 'unfit'- particularly ethnic minorities and pauper women" (Norocel, 2016, p.375). Similarly, now that the Sweden Democrats hold considerable power in the current government, their efforts touch upon, among other things, reducing the number of immigrants that the country receives, encouraging immigrants to return to their home countries, and introducing tighter controls in their borders. There is even a proposal to carry out DNA testing on Non-EU citizens and store the results in "searchable registers" (Mac Dougall, 2022). On the other hand, the party's rhetoric divides the Swedish citizens from the Muslim immigrants: "We will never bow down to Islamism or any other form of extremism, because Sweden is a land of democracy and equality" (Sweden Democrats, 2022). By doing this, the party excludes Muslim immigrants from their idea of Swedishness, portraying them as opponents of democracy and, as a consequence, of Swedish identity and folkhem.


Figure 3. "Welfare or mass immigration?" showcases the rhetoric used by the Sweden Democrats

The Sweden Democrats' populist discourse


In general terms, immigrants are portrayed as a threat, and the Swedish right-wing populist discourse uses this depiction to its advantage by linking common issues that Swedish people experience to the arrival of immigrants to the country. Benjamin Moffitt (2015), Professor of Politics and expert in populism, points out that populist discourse uses threats, whether they are factual or imaginary, and make them look like the reason for all problems in the country, making a spectacle out of it. In this case, immigrants are constructed in discourse as a threat that needs to be stopped via simple ‘solutions’ through the implementation of restrictive migratory policies. In a similar venue, when actors are constructed as existential threats, they can cause anxiety and lead to the undertaking of political action as if these ‘threats’ were security issues (Wæver, 1996).


The Sweden Democrats are a clear example of the volatility of right-wing populist discourse, where minorities can become the target of oppressive political projects that aim to limit their rights. The use of folkhem as a way to oppress immigrants is also reflected through their Euroscepticism because the EU ‘limits’ their sovereignty and ‘freedom’ to stop immigrants from entering Sweden.


Figure 4. Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the Sweden Democrats

Conclusion


Taking everything into account, the case of the Sweden Democrats showcases how effectively emotions can be used by populist discourses, particularly through collective anxiety, and their success seems to indicate that mainstream parties have been ineffective to manage the effects of the migration crisis, along with the economic effects of the Russian invasion to Ukraine and the COVID-19 crisis. The Sweden Democrats' discourse has demonstrated how volatile emotions and identity can be, and how they can be mobilized to target migrant and Muslim communities in the country, as the party is now positioned as one of the most relevant political forces in Sweden.


Bibliographical References

Bolin, N. (2015). A Loyal Rookie? The Sweden Democrat’s First Year in the European Parliament. The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, 2, 59–77.


Diehn, S. A. (2022, September 15) The astonishing rise of the right-wing Sweden Democrats. Deustche Welle. Retrieved from: https://www.dw.com/en/swedish-election-the-astonishing-rise-of-the-right-wing-sweden-democrats/a-63100694


Hellström, A., Nilsson, T., & Stoltz, P. (2012). Nationalism vs. nationalism: The challenge of the Sweden Democrats in the Swedish public debate. Government and Opposition, 47(2), 186–205. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2011.01357.x


Mac Dougall, D. (2022, October 17). From immigration to the environment: Five things we learned about Sweden's new right-wing government. Euronews. https://www.euronews.com/2022/10/15/from-immigration-to-the-environment-five-things-we-learned-about-swedens-new-right-wing-go


Moffitt, B. (2015). How to perform crisis: A model for understanding the key role of crisis in contemporary populism. Government and Opposition, 50(2), 189–217.


Norocel, O. C. (2016). Populist radical right protectors of the folkhem: Welfare chauvinism in Sweden. Critical Social Policy, 36(3), 371–390. https://doi.org/10.1177/0261018315621991


Rydgren, J.; Van der Meiden, S. (2019). The radical right and the end of Swedish exceptionalism. European Political Science 18, 439-455.


Sweden Democrats. (2022). About us. Sverigedemokraterna. Retrieved December 1st, 2022, from https://sd.se/english/


Sweden Democrats. (n.d.-a). Budget och EMU. SD. Retrieved December 1st, 2022, from https://eu.sd.se/budget-och-emu/


Sweden Democrats. (n.d.-b). Migration inom EU. SD. Retrieved December 1st, 2022, from https://eu.sd.se/migration-inom-eu/


Sweden Democrats drop their call for ‘Swexit’ referendum on leaving EU. The Local. (2019, February 1). The Local. https://www.thelocal.se/20190201/sweden-democrats-drop-their-call-for-swexit-referendum-on-leaving-eu/


Sweden Gives Final Election Tally Amid Political Uncertainty. Voa news. (2018, September 16). Voa news. https://www.voanews.com/a/sweden-gives-final-election-tally-amid-political-uncertainty/4573647.html


Waever, O. (1996). European security identities. JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 34(1), 103–132.



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Rodrigo Bielma Silva

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